What exactly do we mean when we say our purpose is to “advance the kingdom”? I think we are reaching for a way to say we want to participate in God’s kingdom but often I hear what is synonymous with advancing our own interest or organization which, of course, naturally, we believe to be completely in line with and consistent with what God is doing in the world. But it is precisely this presumption that needs tempering.
In the New Testament, one does not “advance” the kingdom of God. As the parable of the sower illustrates.
This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26–29 NIV)
True, the farmer does his part, but as the parable makes clear growth is a rather mysterious affair. And that is the way it always is with the growth or expansion of the God’s kingdom.
The Apostle knew this. In 1 Corinthians Paul explains clearly his role in advancing the kingdom of God:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 NIV)
Thus, the language of participation is more suitable to our role in the Kingdom of God—which after all is God’s domain. In the language of our text, we are God’s fellow workers, God’s partners—not a bad position, mind you. Together we might be said to advance the kingdom of God but truly it is God’s power that has always advanced his kingdom. In a sense, we are along for the ride though with a significant role, but we are not the advancers—the Spirit of God is— and we are more like the rear guard, or to mix metaphors, the harvesters. (Paul liked to mix his metaphors, too).
Ironically—given the way we sometimes speak about advancing the kingdom—the only time that the notion of “advancing” the kingdom appears in Scripture is when Jesus critiques those who seek to lay hold of that kingdom.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν) (Matthew 11:12 NIV)
Here it is the kingdom itself that is advancing forcefully, even violently, and it is violent people seeking to control it.
So if “advancing the kingdom” is a bit of an overshot, is there better language for talking about our relationship to the kingdom of God?
In scripture, the normative way of speaking of our relationship to the kingdom of God is through “entering” and “receiving.” This receiving and entering is to be done in the spirit and disposition of a little child—not a lot of “advancing the kingdom here, just the humble acceptance of God’s gracious move. For entering, see Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23–24; 21:31; 23:13; Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23–25; Luke 18:17, 24–25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; 19:8; for receiving, see Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Heb 12:28; 2 Pet 1:11.
So the next time you are tempted to say “advance the kingdom of God,” slow down a bit and ask “really?” Is this really what God is up to, or am I co-opting the kingdom to advance my ministry, organization, or mission?